Your definitive guide to peyote — the mescaline-containing cactus used ritually by indigenous-American cultures since prehistory.
Ethnobotanical studies have documented more than 100 cacti used by indigenous peoples: one of which, peyote (Lophophora williamsii), has largely been adapted for its medicinal and visionary qualities.
Peyote is a green, spineless cactus that contains the classic psychedelic compound mescaline. Numerous Mesoamerican cultures, including the Huichol (Wixárika), the Cora (náayeri), the Tepehuanes, the Tonkawa, the Mescalero, and the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) have long regarded the plant as sacred, using it in spiritual and healing ceremonies for millennia.
Peyote has held a special place in the native American-Indian psyche. Many believe the plant’s power is derived from its diverse array of psychoactive alkaloids, whereas others believe it to be a divine living spirit gifted by God. What most agree on, is its profound healing potential.
Peyote has been the subject of many arguments and lawsuits over religious and indigenous self-determination throughout the past century. Despite efforts to control and ultimately eradicate ritual use, perseverent groups of people, passionate about one’s personal right to consume peyote, have ensured that use has persisted.
Peyote remains a much-desired plant today for religious, medicinal, and recreational purposes. However, the destruction of the natural habitat in which it grows has severely impacted populations.
Peyote is a species of small, green, globular-shaped psychedelic cactus that grows close to the ground in the deserts of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States.
The top of the cactus is adorned with a disc-shaped “button,” which is the part that is traditionally consumed. Peyote buttons are sliced and dried before being chewed or brewed as tea to release the psychoactive substances that lie inside.
Peyote contains a variety of psychoactive alkaloids, mescaline being the principal psychedelic-producing substance. The potency of each peyote plant depends largely on its age, location, and season of harvesting, making it difficult to accurately estimate doses.
Standard peyote doses are as follows:
Peyote’s defense against predators is its characteristic bitter taste, which, evidently, does not repel humans from experimenting with the divine cactus.
Mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine) is the primary source of peyote’s psychoactive effects. This naturally occurring psychedelic substance was first isolated in 1897 by German chemist Arthur Heffter, who, through a series of animal and self-experiments, demonstrated that mescaline was the alkaloid responsible for peyote’s profound psychedelic effects.
Austrian chemist Ernst Späth became one of the most eminent proponents of the Viennese school of phytochemistry when he synthesized mescaline for the first time in 1919. Späth’s structural elucidation marked a pivotal moment in the chemistry of organic natural products.
Mescaline was brought to a broader audience with the publication of British author Aldous Huxley’s, Doors of Perception. As a consequence of Huxley’s poetic 63-page trip report, mescaline became the first psychedelic to take esoteric corners of the West by storm.
Unfortunately, the doors to personal experimentation and research using mescaline and peyote were abruptly banged shut in 1970 with the signing into law of the 1970 controlled substances act. Thankfully, an exception was made for bona fide religious practice by indigenous Americans.
Interestingly, the term “psychedelic” emerged from a 1956 correspondence between Aldous Huxley and the English psychiatrist who turned the notorious writer onto mescaline, Dr. Humphry Osmond.
In a letter to Osmond, Huxley suggested “phanerothyme,” from the Greek phanein (to reveal) and thymos (soul), sending him the following rhyme: “To make this mundane world sublime, Take half a gram of phanerothyme.”
Osmond, however, preferred the term “psychedelic,” derived from the Greek words psyche (mind) and delos (to manifest), and replied with a rhyme of his own, “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, Just take a pinch of psychedelic.” Osmond announced the term psychedelic at the New York Academy of Sciences meeting in 1957.
Peyote has been a sacrament in the spiritual life of indigenous Americans since ancient times.
Recent radiocarbon analysis of potent peyote material recovered from the Shumla Caves, a series of nine caves on the Rio Grande in Val Verde County, Texas, uncovered three specimens dating back more than 5700 years. Researchers demonstrated that the peyote specimens fall into the Eagle Nest subperiod of the Middle Archaic Period.
Interestingly, the specimens lack the anatomy of a peyote cactus. Instead, what remains is an assemblage of ground peyote mixed with other plant materials flattened into a hemisphere shape, vaguely resembling peyote buttons. Why the accumulation of plants was shaped into the form of a peyote cactus remains a mystery.
From the very moment that ruthless conquerors set foot in Mexico, the ritual use of peyote has been the subject of much controversy, demonization, and unjustifiable suppression.
Spanish conquistadors, seemingly intolerant of any religious practice but their own, ferociously persecuted indigenous people, which they deemed justifiable on the grounds of Christian morality. Condemned as nothing short of a satanic ritual, much of the history of peyote use is dyed with the derogation of indigenous societies.
In 1620, the holy office of the Spanish inquisition banned peyote for non-indigenous people, before attempting to oust the plant from colonial society altogether over the next two centuries. Peyote consumption was deemed dangerous and sinful by the Spanish, largely because the relationship between indigenous people and their sacrament was considerably different from that which they shared with other plants.
Ritual use of peyote among indigenous populations was completely prohibited by 1720.
The edict imposed by conquistadors achieved relatively little of what was intended, however. Rather, it merely served to further circulate peyote use among American-Indians and non-indigenous populations, who were reluctant to give up ritual consumption of their sacred plant — a practice that had been established through millennia of tradition.
In Mexico, several indigenous communities, having had their religious practice driven into the hills, continued their customs surreptitiously. They defended their communities from state molestation, and sacramental use has persisted to the present day.
Ritual use of peyote spread from Mexico in the late 1800s. By the end of 1885 ceremonies were taking place in central parts of the United States, and peyote started to be consumed widely as part of a pan-Indian religion.
Peyotists in the US gained religious exemption to consume the cactus, and several groups coalesced to form the Native American Church (NAC) in 1918. In what was a long-drawn-out process, the NAC overcame legal battle after legal battle to defend their religious right.
Interestingly, Christian morality was utilized as a mechanism of resistance by peyotists by helping to foster the development of a pan-Indian religion, inadvertently serving to spread the ritual use of peyote.
The Canadian branch of the NAC was established in 1954, and, in 1996, rights were granted to US military servicemen and women who were members of the NAC to use the sacrament for religious purposes when off duty.
Today, at over a quarter of a million members, the NAC is the largest pan-Indian religion in North America.
NAC ceremonies are rooted in the American-Indian concept of holistic health and harmony with nature, and are often geared towards healing and communication with the spirit world. Peyote is consumed in a structured religious setting — often the home of one of the participants — under the guidance of a socially sanctioned healer.
The formal part of the ceremony typically begins at sunset and ends at sunrise. Attendees sit in a circle around a central altar-fireplace, and after a certain point in the ceremony, peyote is passed around the circle of attendees. Much of the night is spent singing religious songs and saying prayers, which are led by each person in turn and accompanied by a drum and gourd rattles.
Ceremonies are conducted in an orderly, ritualized fashion to help counteract perceptual distortions. The drum, rattles, ceremonial tobacco, and other important objects are passed only in a certain way, and people walk in only one direction around the hogan or tepee.
Ceremonies typically end with the consumption of symbolic foods and water.
For the Huichol tribe of the Sierra Madre Occidental, peyote rituals are still very much a central aspect of life. Each year, they make a pilgrimage of some 200 miles from the western Sierra Madre to Wirikuta — the hallowed site of peyote in Potosí.
Hunting peyote as if it were deer, the experienced "mara'akame" or shaman shoots the first cactus to be harvested, which is considered the supernatural guardian of the deer. The Huichol’s yearly ritual is thought to closely resemble pre-Colonial Mexican ceremonies.
As peyote is psychedelic — its main psychoactive ingredient, mescaline, a partial 5-HT2A receptor agonist — users often experience euphoric sensations, personally meaningful psychological revelations, and profoundly cathartic mood-elevating visions, similar to those evoked by other classic psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin.
NAC ceremonies are held for a variety of healing purposes. Most notably, anecdotal reports suggest that ritual use of peyote in a structured religious setting may be an efficacious treatment for alcohol abuse among indigenous Americans.
The controlled, structured setting and nurturing environment in which NAC ceremonies take place, in conjunction with their unique supportive elements, seem to establish a holistic treatment model that takes the entirety of the human being into account. Unfortunately, controlled studies examining the effects of peyote on addiction disorders have yet to be conducted.
Peyote has also been claimed effective in the treatment of anxiety, depression, pain conditions, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
A 2013 population study on psychedelics and mental health found that lifetime mescaline use was associated with lower rates of serious psychological distress, whereas lifetime mescaline and peyote use was significantly associated with lower rates of psychiatric medication prescription, lower rates of symptoms of agoraphobia, and lower rates of psychotic symptoms.
However, traditional use of peyote is not limited to ritual. The Tarahumara, for example, reportedly consume peyote to enhance their endurance for long-distance running. Also, as the liquid extract of the cactus contains the antibiotic alkaloid, peyocactin, the Tarahumara use it as a topical treatment for cutaneous lesions, snakebite, and scorpion stings.
As peyote is a Schedule I substance in the US and Mexico, it is currently illegal to consume. However, peyote is legal for NAC members under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and non-American-Indians are permitted to use it as part of bona fide ceremonies.
In Canada, fresh peyote and other mescaline-containing cacti, including the less potent but commonly used San Pedro (Echinopsis pachanoi) and Peruvian Torch (Trichocereus peruvianus) cacti, are exempt from scheduling.
In most European countries, it is legal to cultivate peyote but illegal to prepare it for use, whereas, in Australia, the legality of peyote varies from state to state.
Due to peyote’s slow-growing nature, overharvesting, an expanding agriculture industry, peyote tourism, urbanization, hazardous waste disposal, oil exploration, wind farms, and narcotrafficking, the cactus is now, tragically, at risk of extinction.
Overharvesting, in particular, has led to the gradual disappearance of peyote clusters, with up to a 40% reduction in the number of cacti in some areas. The extraction of groundwater necessary to irrigate the crops is also leading to a lack of water in regions where peyote grows, such as Valle de Arista in San Luis Potosí.
Also, the number of NAC members has increased along with the amount of peyote they consume.
Some scholars, including researcher Pedro Nájera of Conabio (the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity), predict that peyote could be an extinct species within the next 10 years.
However, by forming community-based peyote restoration and conservation programs, researchers, conservationists, and lawyers, in cooperation with indigenous communities, have it within their power to protect peyote.
Monitoring, education, and reforestation projects could be employed to combat peyote looting, and cultivation projects could help to preserve peyote populations. Such programs could also expand access to the spiritual sacrament in a controlled, shamanistic context.
Peyote is a beautiful plant with the power to connect an alliance of people dedicated to its survival and flourishing. It possesses profound healing properties that can improve the psychological, spiritual, and physical well-being of those who consume its unique composition of phytochemicals.
Having survived a relentless bombardment of religious and racist threats over the past couple of centuries, the NAC now quite remarkably represents the largest indigenous spiritual organization in North America.
However, there is a pressing need to preserve peyote for those who are passionate about learning more from this plant teacher. For members of indigenous communities who insist that their use of peyote is integral to who they are, the preservation of their special sacrament is essential.
“Peyote is everything, it is the crossing of the souls; it is everything that is. Without peyote, nothing would exist.” - Jose Bautista Huichol, shaman and peyotero.
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